Ainan Cooperative, Yasutaka Suisan: Sustainability awareness, changing markets impacting Japanese seafood production

The Ainan Fisheries Cooperative red sea bream aquaculture operation.

A number of changes are underway in Japan’s seafood industry. A 2020 fisheries law significantly changed Japan’s fisheries management, and Japanese producers and harvesters are increasingly adopting measures to provide assurances of responsible supply geared both toward the domestic market – where consumer interest in sustainable seafood is growing – and for exports, which have increased as domestic consumption has dwindled.

In March 2023, Ainan Fishery Cooperative Association, Yasutaka Suisan Co., and Hamasui Co., became the first companies to receive Best Aquaculture Practices (BAP) certification for a fish species in Japan. Ainan Fisheries Cooperative members produce approximately 20 percent of Japan's total production of red sea bream. The cooperatives general manager of its sales promotion department, Takahiro Okada and Yasutaka Suisan Representative Director Takami Yasuoka, led the certification push.

This is the first in a series of five Seafood2030 interviews focused on exploring the growing influence of sustainable practices and responsible management on Japanese seafood production, completed in conjunction with Seafood Legacy, which provided assistance with translation. Founded in 2015, Seafood Legacy is a nonprofit organization offering sustainable seafood consulting and platforming services to Japanese seafood businesses and government entities.

Seafood2030 has sustainability resources translated into Japanese available for companies here.

SeafoodSource: With all the recent changes influencing seafood production and consumption, how has the cooperative responded?

Okada: In 2017, the Ainan Fisheries Cooperative obtained AEL [Aquaculture Eco-Label] certification for all 10 of our fish species, and the cooperative has worked with producers to promote sustainable aquaculture. Our group also received MEL [Marine Eco-Label] aquaculture group certification for red sea bream and MEL CoC [chain of custody] certification at the Hamasui processing plant in 2020.

SeafoodSource: What motivated your early efforts to obtain certification?

Okada: For some time, Ainan Town, the Fisheries Cooperative, and Ehime University have worked together to address issues in the fishery industry, [such as] the early detection of red tides. In particular, we have collaborated closely with producers to share production methods and create instructional manuals. The initiative to obtain a third-party certification verified the good work being done and helped increase the credibility of our efforts.

SeafoodSource: And you recently received BAP certification for red sea bream. Was that the same motivation?

Okada: We have exported red sea bream to the U.S. since 2019. When considering which global standard eco-label certification we wanted to obtain, we chose BAP certification because of its popularity in the U.S. and its costs. Another reason was that no one else in Japan had received BAP certification yet.

We received business offers from foreign hotels and other businesses with whom we had not really been connected before. There were also many inquiries during the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, and we feel that the BAP certification has created high expectations for us.

SeafoodSource: Along with the market value, what value does certification have for Japanese fishermen?

Yasuoka: I think the certification proves we are working on sustainability. With sustainability, it is necessary to involve a third party in the assessment because it is difficult to tell whether a company does things properly or not from only self-reporting.

Awareness of the value of manufacturing in Japan has always been high, and simply being made in Japan increased the trust of customers in a product. In this sense, it is rather disappointing to see that a growing number of distributors and retailers will not do business with you unless you have a certification and that the label “Made in Japan” is no longer recognized as a value.

Japanese consumers' awareness of sustainability is still not very high. Still, we hope they will understand the value of the strict certification we obtained and choose our products.

Okada: I believe it guarantees food safety and security and will become a passport for exporting. Sustainability initiatives for the environment and human rights are also particularly connected to regional sustainability. A challenge in the future will be how to enhance sustainability in our region while acquiring certifications from overseas.

Also, fisheries are the core industry in Ainan. I think obtaining certification and taking action is necessary to promote a sustainable local industry. The BAP-certified red sea bream will bear the “Ainan Sea Bream” logo. We are working on obtaining design trademarks in the U.S., Canada, and other countries, and we want to make the name "Ainan" known around the world.

SeafoodSource: What issues came up in the BAP certification process?

Yasuoka: We were required to reduce the amount of fish in the feed used for our aquaculture as much as possible, but since fish essentially eat other fish, I think it would be better to make effective use of fish raised in the wild, as well. However, it is important to ensure a proper balance and not catch too many wild fish.

One of the criteria for certification is not using antibiotics. Although our company has never used antibiotics, some antibiotics are approved for use in Japan but not in other countries. I felt that adjustments and alignment should be made at the national level on this point.

Okada: Along with the huge amount of time needed to translate English texts, there are many differences in common practices between Japan and other countries. For example, we needed to undergo inspections by bodies that were not required in Japan, and there were categories we do not usually deal with in Japan. We thought that the process would be smooth since we had obtained the MEL, but that was not the case.

It was extra difficult because we were doing this on our own, but we used our past know-how to tackle the problems. The certification for the processing plant was especially difficult because there were many things we dealt with for the first time.

We have been cooperating for a long time with the town of Ainan, the town's fish disease inspection laboratory, and university research institutes, so it was easy for us to obtain scientific expertise. I think this kind of support was a big help in getting the certification.

SeafoodSource: What are your plans for the future?

Okada: We would like to participate in overseas events such as the Seafood Expo North America, hold fairs, and pursue other activities to promote and sell our BAP-certified Ainan red sea bream in overseas markets. We also hope to work together with producers to apply these practices to other kinds of fish and expand the number of certified fish species in the future.

We do not use any antibiotics to raise our red sea bream. Thanks to the Kuroshio Current, we are blessed by an environment that allows us to grow fish without relying on antibiotics, but even so, it takes a lot of time and effort to reduce the density and control the feeding of the fish.

We will continue our efforts to make more people aware of the value of Ainan Fisheries Cooperative's prized red sea bream in the hope they will choose our safe-to-eat and delicious product.

Photo courtesy of Ainan Fisheries Cooperative


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